Monday, March 14, 2011


Shortly after the Super Bowl, screenwriter and journalist John Eskow wrote a piece for the Huffington Post in which he talked about Christina Aguilera’s use of “Oversouling” during her performance of the Star Spangled Banner. Eskow’s article can be found here: 

Here is Aguilera’s performance:

Oversouling, as defined by Eskow (and legendary Soul producer Jerry Wexler, who coined the term) refers to “gratuitous and confected melisma” Melisma is the blending of several notes into one syllable or word.  It is a hallmark of African American singing style and used properly can connote a soulful feeling.

However, Oversouling takes Melisma too far.  To quote Emperor Joseph II in Amadeus they use too many notes.  Rather than a spontaneous, improvised expression, Oversouling is a calculated display of the singer’s vocal technique.  They are effectively singing scales within the word. Oversouling is an outgrowth of the “Diva” aesthetic, where the emphasis is on a showcasing of individual ability to the detriment of a group or of the song itself.  Ironically divas are venerated in modern times for the same reasons they used to be reviled: they are the spoiled brats of the music industry.

Compare Aguilera’s performance at the Super Bowl to Adele’s new song “Someone Like You”:

Unlike Aguilera, Adele uses vocal techniques like vibrato, volume dynamics and yes, limited melisma in service of the song. In the chorus she even goes up an octave but doesn’t quite hit the notes. We don’t care, however because it’s about the emotions she’s feeling, rather than her technical performance.  Her performance is all the more soulful because of the restraint, not in spite of it.

Eskow’s article has created a bit of controversy.  There have been almost 1600 comments on the post.  There have been accusations of racism. That as a white man critiquing oversouling, he is essentially calling the music “too black”.  I don’t agree however, I do think that his use of the term “minstrel show” was a bit unfortunate. Yes, it suggests white musicians putting on blackface, but it also suggests a power dynamic that infers that blackness can be copied and commoditized.

Of course on the other end of the top 40 spectrum is the ubiquitous use of Robotic Auto-Tune. The reason that it’s so ubiquitous is that it hides the fact that certain “singers”` can’t sing. Auto-Tune was initially developed to invisibly correct a vocalists pitch.  When recording the song “Believe” the producers were using Auto-Tune to correct her vocals.  They were testing out extreme settings on the Auto-Tune and created the vocal effect.  It’s now being used manufactured pop stars seem like they can sing. However, instead of being subtle by applying it invisibly, they are disguising the pitch correction through the robotic effect. Mind you, given that it is an effect, it doesn’t mean that Auto-Tune can’t be used to great effect. Kanye West, for example has used Auto-Tune brilliantly in 808 and Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Rant over).

What do you think?

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